The irony did not escape me, pelting through Soho a couple of weeks ago, fresh from having smashed through the two preview episodes of Black Mirror supplied to press and on the way to meet the show’s co-creators and co-producers Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, when another person and I collided because we were each tapping away at our phones and not looking where we were going. Because we’re all just mindless drones aren’t we, glued to our devices, gulping down dopamine hits like a famished Pete Doherty with a free Olympic Breakfast.
Except unlike the other person (Instagram, I presume), I was checking through carefully crafted interview questions on Google Docs. Sadly, most of those weren’t asked, as the alloted 20 minutes was swallowed up with largely non-sensical chat about pornography, Game Of Thrones, sexy Plasticine figures and a unique way of watching what may or may not be the greatest Christmas film of all time through the cognitive function of a farm animal. Here, presented in free flow, is the full interview with the makers of TV’s best show that doesn’t have DCI Steve Arnott in it.
SOME MINOR SPOILERS FOR SEASON FIVE OF BLACK MIRROR FOLLOW…
So the new Black Mirror is just three episodes, more of an EP than an album. Is that because you burned yourself out doing Bandersnatch?
Charlie: “Well actually, what happened in a way was twofold. One, we thought, ‘We’ve done that before – we’ve done three-episode seasons’. Originally, Bandersnatch was part of season five, and Striking Vipers, which is the first one in this season, was actually shot before Bandersnatch. Then it became it apparent that Bandersnatch was expanding to the point where it was like a whole season in itself. And then, because it was so unique, it made sense to put it out as a standalone thing and have the rest later. Now, we could have made everyone wait until we had another three, but that would have felt a bit odd. And it felt like the episodes had a nice shape to them.”
Annabel: “Yeah, they compliment each other.”
It feels a bit like there’s a theme to the two I’ve seen, and the theme is… love?
Am I doing that thing English teachers do where they find meanings in Shakespeare texts which you suspect probably aren’t there?
Annabel: “Well, wait until you’ve seen the third one [Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too]. The season is maybe more about loneliness, if there’s one unifying theme.”
Charlie: “Maybe, yeah. Bandersnatch, he was lonely in that, too, wasn’t he. It’s a cry for help!”
From which one of you?!
Charlie: “From Annabel, and I’m ignoring it.”
Annabel: “I wish I was lonely.”
Charlie: “You’re constantly going, ‘I’m so lonely, I’m so lonely,’ and I’m going, that’s good material.”
Annabel: “No, I’m saying: ‘leave me alone’.”
In Smithereens, you have the Sexy Fleabag Priest (Andrew Scott)!
Annabel: “Yes. But before he was Hot Priest.”
Do you think it might break some hearts to see him in a not-quite-as-loveable role?
Annabel: “Well, he breaks my heart in it. It’s a wonderful performance from Andrew. He just manages to show so much vulnerability and rawness in very small ways. It’s quite difficult to tell an actor, ‘OK, you’re going to be in a car in Kent for most of the shoot – what can you do with that?’ It doesn’t offer much of a stage, but he’s such a fabulous, fabulous actor.”
You’ve caught him after Fleabag made him super-famous. Is it nice to be on the receiving end of that for once? You’ve given a launchpad to many an actor, like a then-unknown Letitia Wright, who went on to be in Black Panther…
Annabel: “Oh, but Andrew was in Sherlock! He’s huge! We forget about him in Sherlock. I think because whatever you see him in last, you remember in that because he just morphs himself.”
Charlie: “Do you think he could play Morph in a reboot of Morph?”
Morph the Plasticine man?
Annabel: “[Thinks]. Yeah.”
Charlie: “A fuckable Morph.”
Annabel: “Why have you got to take it there?”
Charlie: “Well, everyone’s going ‘Hot Priest’ and objectifying the man, I thought I’d join in.”
This ties into one of my questions, related to Striking Vipers. I was watching it, knowing you’re a gamer, thinking, I bet this is Charlie Brooker’s fantasy, a game you live in. Then they start fucking each other.
Charlie: “And you thought, yes, it’s definitely, definitely what he wants to happen.”
Annabel: “It’s not that you’re a gamer, it’s that you’ve got a massive porn addiction.”
Charlie: “As we’ve said, I don’t even know what pornography is, and every time I ask you to tell me you’re halfway through a description and I start crying because you’re so good at describing it. It’s beautiful.”
Annabel: “Is that a compliment? That is the child in you.”
A lot of technological advances are pioneered by the porn industry – online streaming video, for example. There’s a base level wherein someone invents something and then someone else quickly thinks: ‘Can I put my bits in it?’ Which is what that episode is, right?
Charlie: “So are you saying that inventors should immediately try out their invention for some sort of sexual gratification, because ultimately someone will?”
Charlie: “So the man who invented the lawnmower – I say man, I don’t know – whoever invented the lawnmower should have fucked a lawnmower? That’s what you’re saying? The lawnmowing industry has never been driven by pornography, it’s the purest of things.”
It would be a good plot for a remake of Lawnmower Man though.
Charlie: “Actually, there is porn in Lawnmower Man – don’t they have sex in VR in that? In a sort of ‘90s, blocky VR.”
So, is the principle of a completely immersive game your fantasy scenario?
Charlie: “Hmmmmm, well, I don’t know, I used to be really good at Tekken, or at least I thought I was, but then you play someone great and find out you’re not. Like, Tetris, I’d been playing for many years – not continuously – and thought I was very good at it. But then Tetris 99 came out for the Nintendo Switch, where you’re playing Tetris live against 99 other people in a battle royale, and that’s where I discovered how shit I am at Tetris. There are people on there who are superhuman. It looks like they’re playing on fast forward and it’s profoundly depressing. So if there were incredibly immersive Tekken-style games, my experience tells me I would be being kicked around like a rag doll for hours.”
Annabel: “Striking Vipers is not about video games, though. That’s just the facilitator of the fantasy and the wish fulfilment. It’s an allegory about porn, and how in a world in which porn becomes more sophisticated and more personalised and more immersive, at what point does it change from being a healthy distraction to it being cheating? It’s much more about that than about video games. It’s about [actor] Anthony Mackie…”
Charlie: “…Finding the best moves in Tekken?”
Annabel: “No, about his bromance and how they connect. The intimacy and familiarity of playing this old game with his old friend reconnects them in a way that they’ve lost over the years, and through that intimacy, this relationship develops…”
Charlie: “And he’s trying to work out how to throw a fireball, how to unlock the Arctic stage…
Annabel: “It’s a kitchen sink drama about a love triangle.”
Charlie: “It’s all about special moves they’re doing. It’s about a guy going up-down-left-A-C-C.”
You got a folding phone in there. Do you have any tips for Samsung on how to make one that works?
Charlie: “Yeah, don’t really make one. That one’s not really real, and even that was a pain in the arse. But the biggest pain-in-the-arse fake phone we’ve ever had in the show was in Hang The DJ, which was round. NEVER make a round phone, because it’s a nightmare. There were heated debates over what angle the lettering should be at.”
Annabel: “Charlie, who is going to be interested in that? Who? Who?”
Well, it leads me onto a question, because people are interested in the strangest things, like Easter Eggs. And there’s lots of fan service in Black Mirror.
Charlie: “Yep, there’s a couple of Easter Eggs there…”
The pig fucking gets a shout out.
Charlie: “There’s a few things in the news tickers too, bits and bobs knocking about everywhere.”
So, here’s the question: are fans ruining telly and film? Game Of Thrones, there’s a million signatures on a petition asking them to remake the final season. People went crazy about an animated hedgehog because it has human teeth, so the makers have gone back to the drawing board…
Charlie: “Yeah, but to be fair, that thing looked like something from The Fly. Have you seen that? The trailer from Sonic?”
Charlie: “To be fair to them, they have said they’re going to adjust it. I can see what they thought as well. They thought: Paddington. Because I remember how I felt when I first saw the design for the Paddington CGI bear. I felt [makes copious vomiting noises] but when you see the film, he’s charming.”
But people haven’t even seen the Sonic film.
Charlie: “Yeah, but hedgehogs don’t have fur, that’s mistake number one. They’ve tried to make a photorealistic hedgehog of a cartoon. They’ve given him human teeth and you recoil because it doesn’t make any sort of biological sense.”
Do you empathise with the Game Of Thrones showrunners about the backlash?
Annabel: “It’s a difficult one. I can understand a fan who has invested 10 years into it and loved these characters and feeling it felt a little bit rushed, and that’s the biggest criticism. I don’t know if I should say…”
Charlie: “I will say. There was a thread I saw that summed up the difference between a seat-of-the-pants writer and a plotter, and George RR Martin is a seat-of-the-pants writer, creating complicated characters and scenarios and it’s hard to bring those stories to a resolution, hence why the books are slowing down in frequency. The producers of the show have this story created by a seat-of-the-pants writer but they decide they have to bring it to a conclusion, which presents a problem, because characters in plotter stories tend to be a bit thinner. It felt to me like there were romances, for instance, that were built in because they had to happen for the purposes of the story. Having said that, I think there was a scene right near the end with the rearranging of the chairs stuff, that really reminded me of early episodes and was really enjoyable to watch. So overall, with the situation they were in, they did a good job.”
It sounds like you’ve given the final season a 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Charlie: “About that, yes.”
Not something you’ve had to struggle with, with your self contained stories, but there is a linking universe in Black Mirror. Is there a logic to the universe that has to apply?
Annabel: “I don’t think you want to paint yourself into that corner.”
Charlie: “We don’t tend to have completely impossible things happen, except maybe in Bandersnatch, where the format itself was part of the story. We’re lucky in that any given run of Black Mirror there are episodes people hate and episodes people love, and people don’t agree on which ones are best. If you’ve hated one, we haven’t ruined the characters in the next one. In terms of petitioning people to remake the show though, that’s a bit mad.
“What they should do, and what would be more interesting, I was obsessed once with the idea of Die Hard Through A Cow, which was – if you could get the technology – you put a cow in the cinema and you show it Die Hard, and you put a machine in its brain that’s recording everything it thinks, right, and then you extract the cow’s version of Die Hard and you turn that into a screenplay and you film that. Die Hard Through A Cow. And that’s what they should do with Game Of Thrones.”
Right. Moving on: Miley Cyrus is in the new season. Why her? Big Hannah Montana fans?
Charlie: “She was the perfect choice for the part, basically.”
Annabel: “It’s an outlier for us, writing a role for an international popstar. And if you’re going to try and pull that off… [To Charlie] Snigger?”
Charlie: “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
Annabel: “It’s quite a big thing to feel credible, so being able to cast someone who is that international pop star and has all that stage presence and that charisma and can act was the stuff of dreams, and the film, as you will see, explores the commercialisation of the music industry, what it is to be an artist in the digital world where music can be produced by AI, and it is an anarchistic look at the industry and Miley embodies that spirit. She’s had that trajectory, Disney starlet to creating her own music and image, and as a result her fanbase has shifted and she’s had to confront and deal with all of that, so the story spoke to her. She brought a lot to it.”
Charlie: “We sent her the script and we were discussing who could play the part and you go, In a dream world it would be someone like Miley Cyrus, and we had a discussion about it and we thought we had nothing to lose by sending her the script. We sent it to her, the equivalent of dropping a bottle with a message in it into the ocean. It turned out she’d seen the show, enjoyed it – or at least withstood it – and liked the script. So we did a Skype call with her and it was immediately apparent that she’s a force of nature, she’s a firework, she’s got a very good sense of humour and she’s very self-deprecating. She had all sorts of thoughts and observations on the script and a great awareness of the absurdity of the world she inhabits. She goes a long way to take the piss, basically.”
It follows Vox Lux, which tackles a similar theme, we have Russell T. Davies’ brilliant apocalyptic drama Years & Years on BBC and The Society brand new on Netflix. It feels like Black Mirror started a movement for dystopian comic-drama. Are you watching now thinking, Blimey, telly got good.
Charlie: “Are you saying we should be getting a cut? Well, I’ve not seen Years & Years yet because I get terrible professional jealousy, but one of the things that made me want to do TV was watching the reboot of Doctor Who, so if all these things feed into each other, that’s just flattering.”
And on a note of flattery, I’ve run out of time.
Charlie: “Sorry for wittering on about cows.”
Black Mirror Season Five is on Netflix now